[26 October 2009]
This year’s New York Film Festival was quiet and unassuming, except for the fuss made by critics over it being quiet and unassuming. Jeffrey Wells wrote, “The NYFF selection committee has become a gathering of Trappist monks who’ve been slurping too much goat’s milk with their granola.” In the New York Times, A.O. Scott called it “a panorama of pessimism notable for its exhausting rigor and relentless consistency,” while Stephen Holden said, “As it gazes disdainfully from its cinematic ivory tower, this year’s festival sends the chilly message that attending worthwhile movies should be the aesthetic equivalent of going to church dressed in black.”
There is an iota of truth in these criticisms. While at least part of the Festival’s stated purpose is to expose audiences to international films unlikely to be released in the States, the 2009 selections were more esoteric than usual. And though the newly reopened Alice Tully Hall, airy and modern, contrasts favorably with the previous incarnation’s dim and claustrophobic interior, many films this year were indeed dark. There were a number that I liked very much, but few that knocked me to the floor and this was a disappointment.
Running from 25 September to 11 October, the Festival opened with Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), the most notable exception to the depressive rule. That it came from an 87-year-old director who got his start with heady ruminations on the Holocaust and Hiroshima was a great joy. A romantic comedy with ominous undertones and flights of fancy, it features George (André Dussollier) and Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), older eccentrics who can’t quite figure out what they want from the other. With references to Hitchcock, screwball comedies, war movies, and Flaubert, the movie offers unconventional storytelling and filmmaking techniques, tightly controlled. There were so many wonderfully unexpected developments throughout that it was difficult to absorb them all on first viewing.
This was a year for old masters, including Jacques Rivette (81), Manoel de Oliveira (100!), and Marco Bellocchio (70), whose Vincere is the story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). She bore Benito Mussolini (a roguishly charismatic Filippo Timi) a son and then refused to be quieted when the dictator’s rise to power necessitated an image makeover that did not include an illegitimate child. Even after Ida was locked up in an insane asylum, she loudly insisted that she was Mussolini’s rightful wife. Hers is a story of stubbornness against all common sense. Her characterization here leans on stereotypes, from the jilted mistress to the madonna, the political pariah to the truth-telling madwoman. Ida maintains her self-destructive faith in Il Duce much as Italy did, but the film doesn’t overstate this comparison.
Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon, awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, takes place during the Lebanon War of 1982 and is told, except for the opening and closing shot, entirely from the inside of an Israeli tank, with external events viewed through a gunner’s sight. Here Maoz crowds together the tropes of every war movie: one soldier can’t pull the trigger, one questions authority, one accidentally kills a civilian, and one shows redemptive sympathy for the enemy. After the tension of the opening scenes, the film doesn’t exploiting the possibilities of the limited view and off-screen space. The soldiers’ emotions come off as hackneyed and curiously distanced from specific events.
Lars von Trier’s deeply unsettling Antichrist is what I would call an interesting failure. He uses elements of the horror film to frame the efforts of a therapist (Willem Defoe) to soothe his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) after their young son’s death. Removed to a cabin in the woods, they become the locus of the film’s problematic sexual politics, but like all von Trier movies, it gleefully resists being pinned down. Terrible and laughable and haunting and provocative and infuriating, it offers as visceral an experience as film can.
At first I thought Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (Politist, adj.) was a predictable satire of the smallness of Romanian life. It opens with Cristi (Dragos Bucur), an undercover detective, following a teenager to and from school. An occasional hashish smoker, the boy has been ratted out by a school friend and Cristi’s superiors want him to organize a sting. Despite this mundane start, the movie turns into a meditation on moral laws versus laws of the state, as these produce different sorts of truths.
The director contrasts long scenes of Cristi at work with conversations concerning the meaning of words, images, and symbols. Cristi doesn’t uncover anything incriminating apart from the occasional joint being smoked, but these scenes are oddly captivating, revealing something of a straight truth that cannot be affected by words. Porumboiu’s gift for absurdly dry humor—displayed when Cristi and his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) quibble over the meaning of a pop song or his boss forces him to look up nearly every word he uses in the dictionary—helps to alleviate the bleakness of this world, where the law seems the only way to guarantee order. Intelligent and subtle, this movie was one of my favorites.
The Festival did feature some more conventional movies. Mother (Madeo) is South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s return to the detective story after The Host. Kim Hye-Ja plays the title character, determined to prove that her mentally retarded son Do-Joon (Won Bin) is innocent after he is arrested for the murder of a local teenager. Though many of the plot twists are expected, the film also explores how individuals try to recall events surrounding the murder while also forgetting selectively. Kim delivers a wonderful performance, balancing the mother’s quiet strength against the film’s style, which is something like early-Spielberg meets arthouse.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire follows 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones’ (Gabourey Sidibe) struggles with nearly every social ill imaginable: illiteracy, poverty, morbid obesity, an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), repeated rapes by her father, babies resulting from this abuse (one with Down syndrome), and HIV. Such storylines have been better handled by more cynical Hollywood films. Precious’ illiteracy is resolved in one embarrassing scene where she learns to read the word “at” (within weeks, she’s comfortable with words like “responsibility”). Also troubling is screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher’s use of “ghetto” dialogue, stilted and at times stereotypical, as when Precious asserts, “I is learning.” I was unfortunately reminded of Percival Everett’s Erasure, in which Oprah Winfrey praises a book called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto as a “gritty” look at how African Americans “really live.” (Oprah and Tyler Perry executive-produced Precious.) To its credit, the film does include a moving speech by Mo’Nique, recognizing the tangled layers of abuse and disadvantage within Precious’ world, a situation not easily papered over with a three-act structure that sticks a sweet protagonist into a horrific situation and then magically maneuvers her out of it.
The White Ribbon
Other kinds of domestic troubles form the center of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band). It opens with a long shot of a country doctor riding home on his horse. The horse hits a trip wire and the doctor falls, the first in a series of mysterious, violent events that plague a small village in northern Germany in the year before the First World War begins. The attacks seem to be repressive outbursts against religious and economic orders, embodied by a baron and a parson (Burghart Klaußner), whose punishing conservatism is wielded most harshly against his children. Like much of Haneke’s work, The White Ribbon seems at first a suspense film, dry and neat, only to diffuse the suspense in favor of character and societal explorations. It is narrated by the schoolmaster (Christian Friedel), who eventually confronts the town’s elders when he believes he knows who is behind the crimes. Throughout the film, he is also sweetly wooing the young woman taking care of the baron’s newborn. His example, though a small one, shows that sincerity and kindness can exist alongside rigid judgments.
There were plenty of films in the New York Film Festival that captured similar redemptive moments and there is nothing esoteric, depressing or arduous about that. The documentary Ghost Town is a tender portrait of a dying village in China, and Claire Denis’ White Material looks with compassion at French colonialism in Africa. In Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz returns to the setting of Happiness. Though he once again treats his characters caustically, the film also intermittently grants them the forgiveness they ask for. In these moments and many others, the Festival was less quiet and unassuming, more inspiring.
Life During Wartime